Thursday, September 27, 2012

Yayoi Kusama Drawings from the Mid-50s at the D'Amelio Gallery

The Yayoi Kusama retrospective at the Whitney Museum is a fun show. It's a curious mix of the whimsical and the grotesque though I didn't find it as crazy as Kusama's exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in 1998, which featured her works from 1958-1968, her decade in New York City.

It's easy to be dismissive Kusama's most recent efforts, particularly her high profile collaboration with Louis Vuitton and the ensuing media blitz. Selling out would be putting things mildly. Her latest works on view at the Whitney feel empty, with a mechanical feel that contrasts with the humble scale of her heartfelt pieces at the beginning of her career.

So I was pleasantly surprised to stumble upon the D’Amelio Gallery's show in Chelsea, Yayoi Kusama Drawings from the Mid-50s featuring twelve works on paper dating from 1953 -1957, all from the collection of Richard Castellane, Kusama’s New York dealer in the mid sixties.

The show illuminated my favorite period of Kusama's oeuvre, just before she went large scale, obsessive, and commercial. The D'Amelio pictures were executed in tempera, pastel, watercolor, and ink, and have a certain introspection of a struggling artist going within by exploring incandescent objects in dark, infinite space. They also presage Kusama's mental problems and fixation with repetitive forms in her later work.

It's a rare glimpse into Kusama's formative years and, in my opinion, perhaps the most deeply affecting expression of her creative vision. This exhibit will be on view until October 20, 2012.

Column No.1 (1953)
Tempera and pastel on buff paper
15 x 12 3/4 inches

Snow Ball in Sunset (Snow Ball in Sansunset) (1953) 
Pastel and tempera with black ink on red paper 
10 1/2 x 10 inches

Archaic Dance Costume (1953) 
Ink and gouache on paper 
11 5/8 x 8 7/8 inches

Ground (1953) 
Pastel, watercolor and ink 
14 1/8 x 10 inches

Tree No.1 (1953) 
Black ink and tempera on buff paper 
14 x 9 7/8 inches

Monday, September 24, 2012

Opening Night at the New York Philharmonic

(photo courtesy of The New York Times)

Alan Gilbert - Conductor
Leif Ove Andsnes - Piano

GYÖRGY KURTÁG -  ... quasi una fantasia ... Op. 27, No. 1 (1987–88)
BEETHOVEN - Piano Concerto No. 3 (1803)
STRAVINSKY - Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) (1911-13)

Last Wednesday the New York Philharmonic opened its season with a program featuring works by Beethoven, Stravinsky, and Hungarian composer György Kurtág.

Kurtág wrote  ... quasi una fantasia ... as an homage to Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. On my first hearing, I didn't quite get the melodic connection though the atmosphere was similarly haunting, with a surreal and ghostly atonality pervading the work.

The 10 minute piece was an extension of the surround sound theme of the Philharmonic 360 series last June (which I missed unfortunately). The piano and timpani were located onstage; the vibraphone, marimba, cimbalom, and percussion in the rear orchestra; the harp and celeste in the first tier, and the strings, winds and brass in the third tier. It was certainly novel and very interesting but the size of the Avery Fisher Hall pretty much guaranteed a dynamic imbalance for most of the audience, especially for those who were seated next to one of the groups of instruments (like me).

I've always thought of Andsnes as a cerebral rather than an overtly emotional pianist and so it was interesting to hear him in Beethoven's third piano concerto, which admittedly seems more Mozartean than the composer's unabashedly Romantic later works. Andsnes brought his formidable technique into play especially in the first cadenza where he deployed the most brilliant runs and arpeggios I've ever heard in a live performance. His Largo was noble and profound, and the third movement was just exhiblirating. A wonderful performance indeed.

The Rite of Spring may no longer seem so shocking nowadays but it's still a riveting orchestral piece. Gilbert conducted the score with great polish and incisiveness, perhaps underplaying the raw expressionism a bit, but still full of dramatic splendor even without the original ballet.

The program was broadcasted live on WQXR and you can still listen to the recording here. The best thing about the concert? I got an orchestra seat with my student discount - for $13.50. The Philharmonic could very well turn into a weekly habit for me. I'm certainly looking forward to the rest of the season.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Step Up to the Plate

Step Up to the Plate (Entre les Bras) is a new movie about the Michelin three star restaurant Michel et Sébastien Bras in Laguiole, France.

The restaurant is situated on a hill about 300 miles from Paris in a modern glass structure with sweeping views of the countryside. Just like Jiro Dreams of Sushi, the film focuses on the father Michel passing the stewardship of the restaurant to his son Sébastien.

The documentary is divided into four segments named after the seasons and features snippets of Michel's and Sébastien's daily life: selecting vegetables in the market in the early morning, preparing for dinner service, and after hours relaxation.

The film is also about the creative process and how childhood shapes one's culinary preferences. It opens with Michel explaining and assembling Gargouillo, his complex herb and vegetable course. The most interesting sequence shows Sébastien developing a new dish based on a childhood snack prepared by his grandparents, and then reinterpreting the dish in Hokkaido using Japanese ingredients.

Step Up to the Plate is essentially about food as art, the lifelong dedication that goes with it, the dynamics of tradition versus innovation, and familial heritage. It's a must-see for foodies and anyone who appreciates the hard work that goes behind a great dish.

This inspiring documentary is currently playing at the Quad and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Wagner's Dream on PBS

Last night PBS presented Wagner's Dream, a documentary by Susan Froemke about Robert Lepage's new production of Richard Wagner's Ring cycle for the Metropolitan Opera.

I've seen all four operas over the past two seasons and very much enjoyed Lepage's technical wizardry and pioneering vision. It was courageous of him to even conceive of such a high-tech, futuristic production for the conservative Wagnerian audience at the Met.

Predictably, critical reaction was hostile, particularly Anthony Tommasini's dismissive review for the New York Times. But this didn't affect my enjoyment of the Ring at all. Over the years I've come to realize anyway that music critics don't really have the qualifications to assess theatrical innovation in a knowledgeable manner. Let's just leave it at that.

Wagner's Dream features Lepage and his team conceiving and working out the various problems of this hugely expensive production, particularly the logistics of the main setpiece consisting of oscillating planks with digital projections.

Deborah Voigt, the most affecting Brünnhilde that I've ever seen in a live performance, is featured in extended interviews, and it was fascinating to watch her and Lepage negotiate some of the trickier aspects of the blocking and direction. I've also never seen the backstage of the Met before and was fascinated by scene behind the scene.

PBS will be broadcasting the entire Ring starting with Das Rheingold this evening, Die Walküre tomorrow, Siegfried on Thursday, and Götterdämmerung on Friday. The operas, including Wagner's Dream, are also available on DVD at the Met Opera Shop. I'm glad that this visionary production is finally getting a wider audience.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Ornette: Made In America

My friend Joe, a music producer and hardcore jazz expert, once told me that most people don't "get" jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman on first hearing. Indeed, it took Joe several years to form an appreciation of the musician, whom he now considers his hero. Joe even took an Ornette Coleman class at Jazz at Lincoln Center's Swing University last year.

As a recreational jazz fan, I'll have to admit that Ornette Coleman's music is quite challenging. It's not accessible "smooth jazz" at all. Rather, Coleman's music is discordant, dissonant, cacophonic, and a bit grating as far as my nerves are concerned.

I decided to check out Ornette: Made In America, a recently refurbished 1984 documentary, just to see what all the fuss was about. The film is structured around a 1983 concert where Coleman's band performed with the Fort Worth Symphony.

Shirley Clark, the director, made a film that visually matched Coleman's music. The documentary isn't straightforward or even all that informative. Instead it focuses on improvisation, going off in many elliptical tangents - flashbacks, voiceovers, interviews, psychedelic visual effects - totally incoherent yet somehow perfectly suited to Coleman's groundbreaking and uncategorizable musicianship.

Did it change my mind about Coleman? Yes, in a way. The music seemed so indecipherable at first, but by the end of the movie I felt like I was listening to Stravinsky. Perhaps I was beginning to understand Coleman's genius.

See it for yourself. The documentary in currently showing at IFC Film Center.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

New York Times demotes Allan Kozinn as music critic

Yesterday, Norman Lebrecht's blog Slipped Disc reported that the New York Times has demoted music critic Allan Kozinn to a new post called "general cultural reporter" in order to create a vacancy for the hiring of freelance music and opera critic Zachary Woolfe.

I'm only hearing one side of the story, of course, but still... the politics at the Times is disheartening. I've always enjoyed Kozinn's informative, engaging reviews, and always thought of him as a fair and insightful critic, so much better than some of the newer writers whose commentaries can seem so trite and obvious. Kozinn's articles have been an inspiration for my own blog posts even though I can never hope to achieve the depth of his knowledge and perspective.

The article was a bit cryptic about the inner machinations of the classical music department:
The reasons are purely internal. Culture Editor Jon Landman knows he has a problem in the classical department. The chief critic Anthony Tommasini is thought to have failed to win the confidence of New York’s opinion formers.
Most of the comments voiced support for Kozinn, including one from Paula (Kozinn's partner?) who described Kozinn's extensive preparation for reviews:
I’ve attended hundreds of performances with Allan, and he is always interested in what he’s hearing — no matter how many times he’s heard the piece or orchestra before, or what a weak rendition it is. He hears every note and all the variables. Rather than feeling bored, he’s fascinated by each nuance. That’s what makes him so good at what he’s been doing for so long.

And he doesn’t just go to the concerts and throw together a review. The day of the concert includes listening to various versions of the piece, revisiting the scores and the earlier (when they exist) and latest works by the performers, reading volumes of related information, researching links for the online version and sifting through old and erroneous info often put out by the groups themselves.

Our home is a library. He has built a priceless collection of music, scores and books. It is a very rare occasion that he needs to hear something and does not already have it ,here, in his collection (usually in many versions), no matter how new or obscure. Just taking photos of the walls of CDs and books would fill an album. To give you an idea of how extensive this is — just one part of his collection contains an estimated 180,180 CDs. We have an entire wall of scores, alone.

Not to take anything away from other writers, particularly Steve Smith and others who I have a great deal of respect for, no one can hold a candle to Allan in term of expertise. I see firsthand, that his entire day — every day — as well as vacations and days off are consumed by this passion of his.
One dissenter, Jane, said:
Get a GRIP!

For TOO LONG the NY Times contemporary classical reviews have completely lacked the diversity of opinion found in, for example, the book reviews. Reviews of every concert – as in literally ever concert – range from pretty good to amazing. Is there no bad music in New York? Really?

There is no objectivity in the writing. Kozinn (and even Smith) proudly “like” and back-slap the very people they’re writing about – on Facebook of all places – for all to see. The New York music scene has become a very chummy club between the reviewers and their subjects.

A contemporary composer can proudly post their Smith/Kozinn review to Facebook, tag the review onto the reviewers Wall, and get it “liked” back by the very same reviewer (or their partners). What message does that send out?

Just read all the posts on here and currently on Facebook. God forbid an independent critic is appointed.

Some professionalism and maybe training the NY Times reviewers on how to and how not to use social media might be a good idea. Alex Ross gets its right: there’s a “Chinese wall” attitude to his handling of his reviews and their subjects.

Indeed, I can't recall any negative classical music reviews (excluding opera) in the Times over the past few years so perhaps Jane has a point.  

At any rate, an online petition to reinstate Kozinn has gathered over 800 signatures here. We'll see how this  plays out.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Janet Cardiff at MoMA PS1 and the Park Avenue Armory

The Canadian installation artist Janet Cardiff has two stellar projects currently on view in New York City for a few more days.

For the first piece, The Forty Part Motet, Cardiff arranged 40 speakers in a loft at MoMA PS1 in Long Island City. Each speaker plays a recording of a single voice singing Thomas Tallis's 16th century polyphonic motet Spem in alium, giving the listener the effect of standing in the middle of a choir.

This sacred music was written in 1570 for soprano, alto, tenor, baritone and bass voices without instrumentation. It reverberates through your core and induces a definite spiritual high. This composition lasts for about 10 minutes, and will be at PS1 until September 4, 2012.

The second piece, The Murder of Crows, is a far more ambitious work. Conceived in 2008. Cardiff, in collaboration with George Bures Miller, installed 98 speakers in the cavernous Drill Hall at the Park Avenue Armory.

In the center of the room, through a megaphone set upon spotlit table, Cardiff's voice narrates three vaguely connected nightmares that she had in Africa, accompanied by surreal layers of moving sound effects that include chanting Tibetan nuns, factory noises, guitars and strings, crashing waves, the beating of giant wings, a choral sequence, and marching bands.

According to the artists,
The title for the installation is ‘The Murder of Crows’, which means a grouping of crows. Sometimes when a crow dies, many other crows flock to the area around the dead bird and caw for over 24 hours, creating a ‘crow funeral’. The title also provides a thematic entry into the installation; a basis to create a work that becomes a metaphor for our political situation today.  
I wasn't sure that I got the political metaphor, unless the artists were alluding to social unrest and economic uncertainty in many parts of the world. The whole effect was certainly dreamlike and disturbing. The 30 minute sequence is played in a continuous loop. I listened to it twice, first sitting in the center of the room, then (as many others were doing) walking around the space to experience the swirling soundscape. Really fantastic.

This rarely presented work is part of the Mostly Mozart Festival and will be on view at the Park Avenue Armory until September 9, 2012.

(photos courtesy of MoMA PS1 and Huffington Post)